Navigating Troubled Waters

image: James Hughes
image: James Hughes

This month, James Hughes joins me as Co-Chair of the Residential Landscape Architecture Professional Practice Network. James and I met, albeit virtually, after a letter I sent to our members about issues the Residential PPN hoped to address in the coming year. As you will soon realize, James has a sophisticated and seasoned approach to managing Trouble Clients. He also brings energy and creativity to the PPN. This November in Denver, James will lead the Annual Residential PPN Meeting and I hope many of our members can attend so we can set the agenda for more topics to investigate. James is the principal of his own firm, James Hughes Landscaping, in Tallahassee, Florida.
–Jennifer Horn, ASLA, Residential Landscape Architecture PPN Co-Chair

If you’ve been in the business for more than 5 minutes, then chances are they’ve already made you question your passion and commitment. We’re talking about Trouble Clients. These are the clients that can never seem to be happy. As soon as you’ve addressed one issue and resolved it, they immediately shift to something else that makes them less than satisfied. Maybe they micromanage you, or perhaps look for technicalities they feel keep them from paying your invoices. Whatever the situation, Trouble Clients are a very real thing, and dealing with them is truly a skill set any professional should possess. While client satisfaction is most definitely a high priority, there is a fine line between pleasing a client and protecting your reputation and sanity. I’ve spoken about Trouble Clients with several professionals, and have come up with a few suggestions on how to navigate these troubled waters.

A great way to begin managing Trouble Clients is by identifying potential conflicts from the start. In your initial interview, asking the right questions can oftentimes flesh out client expectations and personalities. Do they understand all of what is involved in pursuing the project? Have they worked with a professional before, and what was their experience? Are they fully aware of the fee structure? Simple, direct questions like these can go a long way with identifying types of clients. One Landscape Architect from California who specializes in residential projects broke down client types into four specific character traits:

  1. Undemanding
  2. Decisive
  3. Demanding
  4. Indecisive

He describes identifying Trouble Clients within this client type matrix like this: “The best clients are Undemanding, yet Decisive in decisions. I can also work with Undemanding, yet Indecisive. Even Demanding, yet Decisive clients can be good to work with. What I avoid is the Demanding, yet Indecisive clients. They will work you to the bone, yet will never be happy.” He goes on to explain, “Once I’ve identified a Trouble Client, I tactfully find ways to make my schedule too busy to accommodate their project, and hope that they move on.”

So what happens if a Trouble Client gets through the screening process, and you find yourself in the middle of a project when conflicts begin? How do you handle an angry client phone call or email? A Midwest-based Landscape Architect uses a sure-fire method in avoiding undue conflict and keeping the relationship, and project, on track: “My policy is that if conflict arises, waiting 24 hours before responding allows the intensity of emotions to subside. It also helps prevent me from responding emotionally and only escalating the conflict.”

image: James Hughes
image: James Hughes

Working in residential practice is a very different beast than commercial or institutional work. With residential projects, you are dealing usually with one or two people, as opposed to a committee. It’s a very personal situation, with very personal factors at play. In commercial and institutional practice, public funding and public spaces are the norm. With residential projects, clients’ personal finances and private homes are the core parameters and must be approached with complete respect and a certain sensitivity. You never know if that tacky, haphazard brick walkway was a weekend project gone wrong, or was a labor of love with bricks harvested from a generations-old family estate. The need for respect and sensitivity in working with residential clients leads me to the last suggestion about dealing with, or avoiding, Trouble Clients.

In his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People, author Dale Carnegie makes the case that all people share the same core desire to be heard and understood. When it comes down to it, we as professionals are trying to win friends (clients), and influence people (get clients to accept our vision for their projects). So it makes sense that in this pursuit, we must acknowledge our clients’ core desire to be heard and understood. Oftentimes, Trouble Clients can be transformed into good clients simply by really listening to them. And a good client might be turned into a great client if we are willing to put in the effort and understand that client emotions are a huge part of the project. All that being said, the third suggestion in this piece for dealing with Trouble Clients is simply this: Become their ally.

Clients come to us with a set of problems that they don’t have the expertise to resolve, nor the time to deal with themselves. What they truly want is someone who understands their problems, and is willing to come alongside them to offer solutions. Instead of trying to convince them that we have all the answers and that our ideas are best (both of which may be true!), we as professionals may instead position ourselves to be the client’s closest ally in finding solutions to their problems, and being a resource to help them get where they want to go. And if we do this from the start, we may find the troubled waters known as Trouble Clients to be that much easier to navigate.

by James Hughes, Affiliate ASLA, owner and principal of James Hughes Landscaping in Tallahassee, Florida and Residential Landscape Architecture PPN Co-Chair. For further information, James can be reached through the company website or via email at

2 thoughts on “Navigating Troubled Waters

  1. CeCe Haydock April 22, 2014 / 6:11 pm

    Thanks for this useful piece. I particularly liked the section on clients’ desire to be heard and understood: that suggestion works very well with one of my current Trouble Clients..

  2. Leah Pine April 28, 2014 / 2:33 pm

    After a consultation and before beginning a design, I send my clients a hand-crafted, individual proposal covering 1) all the design issues that we discussed and the general design directions I intend to explore (based on their wishes) and 2) what the final product–for that portion of the design process–will look like. I ask for comments, revisions, etc… and make the changes and resend the proposal. Although it doesn’t solve every problem with relationships, it goes a long way. …

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